28 May 1999

FUWwalk out in

veggie rumpus

By Robert Davies

FARMERS Union of Wales leaders walked out of the industrys first meeting with Christine Gwyther, the Welsh Assemblys vegetarian farm minister.

President Bob Parrys protest was cheered by around 50 farmers waiting on the steps of the Welsh Office. In contrast, Hugh Richards, president of the NFU Cymru-Wales stayed at the table and left to boos and calls of "traitor". Some angry farmers even attempted to stop him giving television and radio interviews explaining his reasons for continuing the talks.

Rhys Parry, a Monmouthshire NFU member who carried a banner saying "Veggie Must Go", told Mr Richards that he was not representing the views of the majority of his members by asking them to give a vegetarian farm minister the chance to prove herself. There was no way she could promote products she did not believe in.

But Mr Richards said it was clear that the appointment would stand, and his duty was to make Ms Gwyther fully aware of the desperate crisis gripping Welsh agriculture.

"The farmers of Wales would have lost out if the first opportunity to put their case to the new Secretary had been thrown away," he said. "We have yet to discover whether her food eating habits will affect the way she responds to the industry."

One person who attended the meeting described it as surreal. He claimed that, after exchanging pleasantries, Mr Parry asked Ms Gwyther if she would resign. When she replied no, he walked out saying he looked forward to seeing her at a meeting of the FUWs grand council on June 3.

"It was obviously a symbolic gesture in response to comments from angry members at his annual general meeting," the insider claimed. "Mr Parry knows he will have to work with the new Secretary even if she is a vegetarian."

But the FUW insists that Ms Gwythers position is untenable and will continue to campaign for her resignation. A petition launched on Monday describes the appointment as an insult to farming and the ancillary industries, and calls for her to do the honourable thing and relinquish her post.

Ms Gwyther insisted she was not a vegetarian who lived in isolation, nor were her views militant or naive. "I certainly do not see my position as untenable. I can give good service to the rural economy of Wales. That was why I was appointed and that is why I am staying," she said.